Biden Administration May Add More Ethanol to Gasoline to Reduce Fuel Prices

Instead of feeding cars, we should be more worried about feeding people.

An Egyptian man on a cycle, carrying a platter of bread on his head.
Egyptian delivering bread.

Archive Photos / Getty Images

The Biden administration may change the rules that limit ethanol to 10% of gasoline blends in summer and will permit E15 gas that has 15% ethanol, according to reports. This will increase the amount of grain that is used to feed cars when we should really be thinking about growing grain to feed people now that exports from Ukraine and Russia are cut off.

The EPA mandates summer gas because at higher temperatures the E15 evaporates more quickly. According to the EPA: "These rules reduce gasoline emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOC) that are a major contributor to ground-level ozone (smog)."

The EPA also lists the dangers: "Ozone in the air we breathe can harm our health, especially on hot sunny days when ozone can reach unhealthy levels. Even relatively low levels of ozone can cause health effects." These include aggravating lung diseases and making breathing more difficult.

But hey, that's a small price to pay to keep gas prices down. That's why a bunch of members of Congress from corn-growing states has been urging President Joe Biden to enable year-round sales of E15. They note that ethanol is cheaper than gasoline and will "offer consumers affordable and cleaner options at the pump."

It also apparently contributes to the isolation of Russia:

“Preserving the option for American drivers to select E15 throughout the busy summer driving season will benefit our families and businesses while blunting a vital source of funding for Vladimir Putin’s campaign of destruction. Additionally, committing to this policy now will send an important signal of certainty and stability to fuel retailers currently or considering selling E15 in the year ahead.”

Growing food for cars has always been controversial on Treehugger. Just read the comments to previous posts on the subject where I am called a stooge for the oil companies and told this is not food corn but the stuff that goes into animals or corn syrup, and that the smog concerns are a red herring, and growing corn for ethanol doesn't increase food prices. So, before I continue, I will point to studies that concluded that ethanol-powered vehicles generate more ozone than gas-powered ones and a recent study, "Environmental outcomes of the US Renewable Fuel Standard" (RFS), where:

"We find that the RFS increased corn prices by 30% and the prices of other crops by 20%, which, in turn, expanded US corn cultivation by 2.8 Mha [millihectares] (8.7%) and total cropland by 2.1 Mha (2.4%) in the years following policy enactment (2008 to 2016). These changes increased annual nationwide fertilizer use by 3 to 8%, increased water quality degradants by 3 to 5%, and caused enough domestic land use change emissions such that the carbon intensity of corn ethanol produced under the RFS is no less than gasoline and likely at least 24% higher. "
Domestic Corn Use

US Department of Agriculture

It's surprising how little corn actually goes directly into people and how much of it goes via cows as animal feed as well as ethanol. The USDA notes, "Strong demand for ethanol production has resulted in higher corn prices and has provided incentives for farmers to increase corn acreage. In many cases, farmers have increased corn acreage by adjusting crop rotations between corn and soybeans, which has caused soybean plantings to decrease." 

Bread market, Luxor, Egypt
Bread market, Luxor, Egypt.

Gianni Ferrari/Cover/Getty Images

But in other parts of the world, corn or maize and other grains are a major direct part of their diet. According to the Financial Times editors, "The knock-on effects of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine threaten hunger, even starvation, for millions of people beyond the immediate theatre of war."

They continue: "For people in the rich world, the coming food shock will put further upward pressure on grocery bills already affected by the highest inflation in decades. For poorer countries, engulfed by the economic consequences of Covid, higher food prices may spell catastrophe... Food importers from India to Indonesia face higher bills. Egypt subsidises bread, a staple, for 70mn people, a huge drain on the exchequer. Leaders of other countries in a similar fix will remember the kind of social unrest, including the Arab uprising, that can follow rising food prices."

UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently said that 45 African and least developed countries import at least a third of their wheat from Ukraine or Russia, with 18 of those importing at least 50%. “We must do everything possible to avert a hurricane of hunger and a meltdown of the global food system," said Guterres.

Tim Searchinger of Princeton University tells New Scientist that all of Ukraine's exports could be replaced if the U.S. and Europe decreased the use of ethanol by 50%. Jason Hill, a professor of bioproducts and biosystems engineering at the University of Minnesota, says getting rid of the ethanol mandate would "send a signal that can be acted on immediately by farmers. Northern hemisphere farmers are deciding now what to plant.”

And yet, here we are in North America, worrying about growing food for cars instead of people! Instead of increasing the amount of corn being planted for ethanol, President Biden should be decreasing it and switching to edible grains for export to those countries facing a hurricane of hunger.